OXFPORD, England -- The British press unanimously applauded the Church of England's decision to ordain women, seeing it as the collapse of the last male bastion. Rupert Murdoch's down-market Sun hailed this triumph for "vicars in knickers."
The official Vatican response was very different and evidently had been prepared well in advance. The spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, an Opus Dei medical doctor and ex-bullfighter, declared that the decision by the Anglican Communion to ordain women constituted a new and grave obstacle to the entire process of reconciliation."
There are two things wrong with that statement. The disputed decision came not from the Anglican Communion but from the Church of England. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, which is still in business, is likewise with the entire Anglican Communion and not just with the Church of England.
The second Vatican error was to say that this is a "new" obstacle to rapprochement: for several provinces of the Anglican Communion have been ordaining women for years, and two of them -- the United States and New Zealand -- already have women bishops.
The Vatican can hardly claim to be surprised. On Feb. 10, 1976, Donald Coggan, then archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Pope Paul VI on the topic.
"We believe," Coggan wrote, "that unity will be achieved within a diversity of legitimate traditions because the Holy Spirit has never ceased to be active within the local churches throughout the world."
Paul replied on March 23, 1976, expressing his sadness at "this new obstacle on the way to reconciliation" -- almost exactly the phrase used in 1992.
That sad but courteous exchange did not prevent pope and archbishop from meeting the following year and declaring that the three ARCIC statements on baptism, ministry and authority had "without compromise ... discovered theological convergences as unexpected as they were happy."
They were to go forward on the basis of common traditions shared by both churches. This shows that the Anglican Communion has a special relationship with the Church of Rome. By opening the Anglican Centre in Rome in 1962 and sending a strong team of observers to the second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Anglican Communion secured recognition as a church with a distinctive personality. Manifestly not an Orthodox church, it also differed from the Reformation churches in that "it retained certain Catholic features." Among them was the threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon.
Many synod members emphasized that point. The Church of England does not have a theology of its own, still less a faith of its own. Geoffrey Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was quoted as saying that "an Anglican priest is ordained not for the Church of England but for the church tout court."
John Selwyn Gummer, minister of agriculture, made the same point from another angle. Of Evangelical background, he has come to understand the "Catholic faith" of the Church of England. The Reformation removed the accretions of late medieval Catholicism. The church that emerged was both Catholic and reformed. The spots and wrinkles were removed from the face. But it was the same face.
However, the more one emphasizes the Catholic nature of the Anglican Communion and its grounding in scripture and the councils of the church, the stronger the argument against going it alone and flouting the clearly expressed position of the Roman Catholic Church.
Opponents argued that the Church of England should not ordain women as priests until the Church of Rome did. The synod was incompetent, being little more than a provincial council masquerading as an ecumenical council.
But there were two reasons why playing the Roman card proved ineffectual. There so far is no prospect of an ecumenical council that would tackle the question of women's ordination. To wait for …